Luc gets stoned in Tibet, literally!

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
Trip End Nov 18, 2002

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Wednesday, June 19, 2002

WARNING: To all french people reading this.

I hereby acknowledge and fully agree that my french sucks... seeing as how, for 80% of the Tibet trek I was accompanied by French people and spoke french 80% of the time ( Ohh yes that's right... Mom would be proud ), I have written some of the dialogue in this entry in french and simply translated others to english.

DISCLAIMER: By continuing to read this entry, you acknowledge that you may not criticize or make fun of any french spelling and/or grammar errors.

If you agree, read on :)

-- Flashbacks

"Tibet will change you, it is like no other place on this earth", my travel agent said in a thick french accent as she laid out the map of China before I left on my journey 4 months ago.

After having been in Tibet for over a week I'm not sure that I've changed but I can attest that this country ( Ooops, have to stop doing that ), this *province*, is, without a doubt, one of a kind on this planet.

It's crisp autumn-like air, high altitude ( almost 4000 meters above sea level ), secluded location nestled in the Himalaya, mystical spiced-up flavour of Buddhism which, at times, seems as mythological as Hinduism, ancient preserved temples and stupas which are still used as pilgrimage sites and it's dynamic, *mostly* friendly people, ( read the "Luc gets stoned in Tibet... " section to find out why I say mostly )
did in fact make Tibet one of my all time travel highlights.

Seeing as Tibet is still fairly backwards and undeveloped, it isn't quite as easy as travelling in say Singapore or Thailand, but in Tibet the biggest problem wasn't figuring out how to get around or how to cut through the political red tape, it was just selecting which photos to upload when after I left the country!! In just over a week I took an astonishing 300 photos... read on to find out why this former country inspired so many photos..

-- The road to China

I awoke at 4am to prepare for the new day's long journey to China. The trip to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet ( a now-Chinese province ) was a 5 day journey and day one was just beginning.

I was excited, for weeks I was convinced that I wouldn't be able to arrange a new trip to Tibet quickly enough, before I would have to return to India but here I was with the elusive, Chinese visa, permits and transportation successfully captured in only 3 days time.

I zipped up my new wooly brown jacket I had purchased in Kathmandu for the cold Tibetan weather and boarded the bus. The journey to the Nepal-Chinese border was a fairly painless one, relatively speaking of course. When we reached the border, we disembarked the bus and crossed, by foot, to the other side, to China. Leaving behind our Nepalese bus and driver. The Tibetan / Chinese transport and guide awaited on the other side. The reason for the duplicate guides and transports? More Chinese politics.

"Ummm, excuse me, I'm supposed to be in a Land Cruiser, where should I go?" His eyes glazed over. The tour guide had no idea what I was talking about.

I queried the 3 guides but no one could help me find a land cruiser.

"No Land Cruiser, just bus, is good."

I'd been screwed again. Although my tour agent promised, without a doubt, under numerous doubtful enquiries on my part, that I would make the long journey to Lhasa via Land Cruiser, and did infact pay extra for the rugged vehicle, I was climbing aboard a mini-bus for the bumpy trip over and across the Himalaya. I guess I was right to be doubtful of the agents... huh, and I thought I picked "the good one".

"Est ce ce que je peu m'assire ici?" The stocky bald french man asked.

"Certainment, assis toi." I said slapping the seat next to me showing him that it would be alright if he sat next to me.

Francise, was a kind aging French Buddhist man who'd come to Tibet on somewhat of a spiritual quest. He was a large man, an ex-wrestler who still, at the age of 65 managed to pull of the costo look. As he sat in the seat adjacent to mine, I felt myself compress against the bus window.

The tour package was a share-room accommodation deal. For the next 7 days Francise and I shared that tiny bus seat and hotel room. Over time, his parental instinct would scratch slowly on my nerves as he would scold me if I didn't drink enough water to counter the altitude sickness that I was suffering from or leave the room without a jacket.

Seeing as he spoke not a word of English though, it made for a strang arrangement. At times I felt as though I was the baby sitter and he the child. Not speaking english in today's world is a difficult task. Francise would adjust his schedule to meet mine and would stay in his room when I would venture off alone which I enjoyed doing and did often.

Although some almost father-son-like friction became irritating from time to time, we got along well and I learned a great deal about Buddhism from him.

The first day we climbed 3500 meters in the Land Cruiser, passed well guarded damns and through lush green valleys, stopping to yell at herds of yaks blocking the route along the way. I'd never been at that altitude before and when we arrived at our hotel room at the end of our first day, I could feel the effects already. An overwhelming lethargical wave of weakness sloshed over me. Breathing was difficult and walking even more so. The problem with altitude was that oxygen tended to thin out as you got higher above sea level. To compensate, your heart beats faster and your body produces more red blood cells to deliver more oxygen to your ailing muscles. On a regular walking trek, the ascension is gradual. Walking up hill and slowly acclimatizing. On a bus rocketing over the Himalaya towards Lhasa, no time is left for acclimitization. The result is brutal and can sometimes be lethal.

Barely able to string a sentence together, I retired to my room early for my first night in China. Oddly it was still sunny when I layed to rest at 9pm. As vast as China was, the whole of the country was on the same time zone and although Kathmandu and Tibet were only a short 6 hours driving distance apart, a two and a half hour time difference took effect. This had the bizarre outcome of having an early sunrise at 6am and a late sunset at 9:30pm. This mixed in with the lack of oxygen made for a very disorienting first night's sleep. Regardless, I crashed down exhausted and passed out.

Ear plugs kept Francise's snoring to a low moan.

-- 5000 meters and rising

The following day we kept rising as we climbed the first Himalayan mountain pass. The mountain passes were high. The air was brisk and cold, a refreshing change from the South East Asian tropics. Our first pass peaked at 5000 meters. Despite the dizzying effects from the lack of oxygen, I managed to stumble out to the edge of the cliff as we stopped for photos at the summit lookout.

The scenery was stunning. I'd never seen such beauty. Tall snow capped mountains crashed through the horizon surrounding us in a 360 degree canvas. The peak of the pass where we'd stopped, as most high passes in Tibet, had a make shift shrine made of multi-colored prayer flags flapping wildly in the cold gusting wind. The prayer flags had sacred mantras printed on every square inch of thin materia. Mantras like the popular "Ohm Mani Padme Hum". As the wind blew the flags, the sacred words were said to dance out into the air.

Francise, combating the tiring effects of the lack of oxygen, slogged out to the prayer flags and tied a white Buddhist scarf he'd brought from France to the makeshift stupa. It fluttered in the wind along with the hundreds of prayer flags.

We gathered back into the bus and continued on. For the remainder of the 10 hour drive to Lhatse, our second over-night pit stop on the way to Lhasa, altitude sickness crept in with almost everyone. Head aches, loss of appetite, irritability, we weren't a happy bunch. Seeing as how I'd decided to go without the malaria meds a week back, I decided to stick to my "all-natural" diet and tuff out the altitude problems rather than taking one of the Diamox tablets which other's had already began to ingest.

"Oxygen - LARGE -- 8 Yuon, Oxygen - SMALL -- 6 Yuon" read the menu at the restaurant we stopped at for lunch. Just what the doctor ordered, I ate one meager quarter of my fried rice and sucked back half a bottle of pressurized, canned, Oxygen for lunch. I was already feeling better.

As we approached Lhatse, the clouds were too thick to see Mt. Everest as was passed by but I was so tired from the altitude that I didn't care much.

When we arrived in Lhatse it was already almost dark. I desperately wanted to run out and snap some prize photos of beautifully wrinkled, and sun burned, Tibetans which I had been keen to capture, but my body disagreed forcefully. The altitude was sucking the last bit of energy from me. It was very dry in Tibet. After dinner, which I barely touched, I went out to find some Tibetan lip balm to soothed my purple, sun scorched and wrinkled chapped lips.

The village was tiny, resembling a frontier town from a western movie. I was scanning for the tumble weed as 2 Tibetans walked up to me and attempted a conversation. They spoke no english and I no Tibetan. Wanting to establish at least some kind of contact, I struggled to find a word they would understand.

"Monestary? Hmmm, no.. that doesn't work. Ummm. Ohh.. Lama?... yeah, Lama... you know Lama?" I questioned.

They nodded and pointed off to the distant right. "I've made contact! There's a monestary!". Just in time, a tractor puttered by as they were pointing. I'd heard that hitch hiking was highly common in Tibet so I gave the sidewards waving motion with my hand and jumped into the back along with 6 other hunched Tibetans.

When I reached the monestary, I ran inside. The short run knocked the wind out of me and I bent over to catch my breath as 3 young novice monks walked over and took me inside.

All of the monks gathered in the courtyard to examine the unexpected intruder. Unfortunately it was too dark to take any good pictures, the sun had already set over the horizon, but the sky was still a deep bright blue. They took me to some locked rooms which contained gigantic prayer wheels. Prayer wheels, much like prayer flags, contained mantras, as the wheels spun, the mantras blew into the air. This wheel was the size of a refrigerator and took a strong 2 hands to slowly spin it as I walked, clockwise, circumbulating the shrine. Using my torch for light we walked through the dark monestary to finally stop in a monk's room for some sugar tea, which consisted of, boiled water with 2 lumps of sugar.

"Dalai Lama?", they repeated signalling that they wanted me to give them a photo of the Dalai Lama. Photos, books and even discussions regarding the Dalai Lama were highly forbidden in Tibet/China and could lead to serious repercussions with the Chinese government. I didn't have any... but they did. They showed me their secret stash of Dalai Lama photos with pride. Before leaving they made me promise to send photo's of Lhasa, having never been there themselves. I took their address, gave them some Canadian coins which they showed enthusiastic interest in, finished my cup of sugar water and headed back to the hotel. Unfortunately, it was already too late and there weren't any tractors in sight to hitch a ride with so I walked, very slowly to avoid passing out with the low oxygen levels.

-- Shigatse

When I awoke the next morning my head was pounding like a bad hang over. I was drastically dehydrated. It took two large bottles of water to get me back on my feet but when I finally mounted the bus sans-head ache, the AMS was finally gone. I was beginning to get accustomed to the altitude and could begin to enjoy the breathtaking scenery along the drive north to Lhasa.

Arriving in Shigatse, we visited the Tashilumpo monestary. The monestary was one of the Gelupa sect's ( The Dalai Lama's sect ). Although the tour was dull, once the guide broke away and we could scatter through the compound, we discovered that a ceremony was to take place at 6pm. We waited until 6, when dozens of young monks in burgundy robes and tall, sideways-romanesque yellow hats marched over to enter an assembly hall. We followed along. Inside all of the monks were sitting face to face, chanting, laughing and drinking yak butter tea. Generally having a great time. It was such a genuine experience. I stopped to think at how different Buddhism was in each country I had visited. All of the principles were the same but the application of it varied drastically. The monks and novices joked, laughed and poked fun while the head monks groaned low meditative OHmmmmms. These monks were enjoying themselves.

Not wanting to wait too long before the sun set, I scurried out of the monestary to climb Shigatse Dzong (Shigatse Fort). The Fort towered over the city and offered a great panoramic view from above. The VERY steep climb kept everyone else away. When I reached the top only two monks sat perched under strings of prayer flags watching the sun set.

Completely exhausted from the lack of O2 and the climb, I staggered back for some dinner of Yak and Tibetan Momos with Francise and a french couple, Jeff and Si.

Jeff and Si, being french speaking, helped out with Francise and allowed me to venture off alone while they took custody.

-- Gyantse

Continuing on our whirlwind trek to Lhasa, we awoke and bussed off north. The main road to Gyantse, a town with a spectacular monestary and with apparently the least amount of Chinese influence in all of Tibet, was closed. The only way to reach it was via a small dirt road which followed the river. Luckily the adventurous members of the group outnumbered the more conservative ones who opted to skip the risk and go straight to Lhasa. After a quick vote, we ventured off onto the dirt path to Gyantse.

We had expected the road to be a nightmare but it was relatively sane. As soon as we arrived, I bolted to the fort to make the best of the hour I had free before the tour of the monestary began. The negative part of being on a tour was that I was confined to the group's schedule, and unfortunately, it was a rushed schedule at that, which didn't cover all of the sites in each city. Reading my guide book I knew exactly what to do as soon as I arrived.

"If I don't make it back for 4pm, I'll meet you at the temple." I shouted to the group as I ran out into the street to flag down a passing tractor.

When I arrived at the Fort, I jumped out of the back of the tractor and ran up to the top of the mountain. The view was magnificent. Below the fort, the Kumbum monestary layed in a one kilometer wide bowl, dug, seemingly naturally, into the solid rock and surrounded by a fortified wall. In the center, stupas and temples rose. Surrounding me on all sides were the Himalayan mountains. As the clouds parted and merged, massive bright and dark cloudy patches slowly swept across the landscape. I unloaded a roll of black and white film and ran back to the temple to meet the group.

On the way, I bought some yak butter to offer to the temple. I'd seen other monks do it in previous temples and thought I'd give a little something back. A little butter to keep the ever-burning chandeliers burning.

Once the group arrived we walked passed the golden prayer wheels which lined the entrance to the temple. The Kumbum, as with all other Tibetan temples we'd seen was pleasantly speckled with pilgrims and monks. Unlike other countries, were temples had since been turned to unused museums, in Tibet, the temples were still very sacred and holy sights to be treated as such.

As the sun began to set, the town was filled with good-photo inducing light. I met up with Jeff, himself an excellent photographer, in the Gyantse side streets.

(Translated to english from french)
"Hey how's it going?" I asked
"Good... excellent light"
"Do these people mind having their photos taken?"
"Yeah some of them do, like this one and that one."
"Err.. hey let me try with my digital."

My digital camera had always been a big hit when english failed.

I snapped a few pics of the street and showed them to the woman with a baby strapped to her back and another cradled in her arms. They all began to laugh and tug at the camera. I was used to this reaction and it usually meant that I could progress to the next stage which was to gesture the can-I-take-a-picture-of-you motion. She gave me the yeah-what-the-hell gesture back. I was in. I snapped away and they all chuckled and giggled as they pointed to the tiny screen behind my camera with the women's face trapped within. The women didn't let me off that easy, I bought her some dried instant noodles and bought the kids some candy and we ventured off down the street for more photo's.

Jeff took off snapping away at different angles of the now-distant fort while I walked passed a man making dung-balls. In Tibet/India and many other neighboring countries, dung (crap, shit, or whatever you call it ) is collected like a precious metal. Once harvested, it's rolled up into paddies and slapped onto houses to let it dry in the sun. Once dried, the hard, highly flammable paddy is used as fuel for the cold winters or sold on the market. I'd never seen someone actually making them and stopped to look. The man smiled, I smiled back and tapped my camera. He proudly shook a yes-you-can-take-my-photo shake with his head and stood up to wash his hands. "Nonono... picture with you making" I gestured him to keep rolling the balls. He understood and returned to making the dung-balls with a bright dignified smile on his face. Once I'd snapped a few pictures, he invited me inside his house. I assumed he wanted to share some tea. Once I sat in his tiny, dark living room ( which was 50% of his hut ), he said one recognizable word. "Dalai Lama?" he said pointing to my pockets.

"Ahhhh... no I am sorry no picture" I was now used to people asking for photos of the high Lama. I didn't have one but, I did have my lonely planet guide book. It then struck me that there was a stenciled picture of the lama at the beginning of the book.
"Ohhhhh... wait" I said, holding up my finger to indicate the timeout.

I quickly flipped through the book and turned to the rough sketch of the Dalai. His eyes grew wide and his smile even bigger. He quickly snatched the book from my hands and held the book over his head.

"Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama!" he repeated.

"Yak po..." I said. "Good" one of the only Tibetan words I knew. He shook his head in agreement.

After his wife entered and bowed to the lonely planet herself, he took me to his bedroom were he kept a small stash of Dalai Lama photo's. Something which would demand serious punishment if caught by the Chinese authorities.

Sensing my time to leave had come, I left and headed back to meet Jeff.

-- "Luc gets stoned in Tibet, literally!"

I found Jeff kneeling on the side of the road with the fort smack in the center of his Nikon's sights. It was a good picture. I kneeled down next to him and got ready to snap my pic. Just before I snapped the picture, a man, walking a Donkey and a cart, walked into the frame. I waited, camera still aimed at the fort, with him now half in the frame.

Oddly enough, through my lens I could see that, he was leaning over and shuffling through the dirt on the side of the road, as if searching for something with one hand. His donkey's strap, still firmly clutched in his other hand.

He picked something up, then dropped it to quickly snatched up another object. As the object came hurling towards me I instantly realized that he was looking for a rock big enough to throw at me.

"Holy shit!" I jumped back as Jeff turned to see what was happening. He had changed his focus to a small boy next to us.

"Hey, he just threw a rock at me!"

The man reach down quickly and grabbed another rock, launching it at me at high speeds. Luckily his aim wasn't that good but as he was yelling at me and walking foreword he quickly came within wiping distance. In his right hand he had a short whip that he was using for his donkey and was swinging it violently at me.

"It's ok, It's ok..." I shouted to the man, slowly motioning my hands downward as if gently tapping a drum.

He continued to shout as he moved in closer. Local Tibetans came out of their houses onto the street to see what the fuss was all about. The man was in a fury, spitting and literally foaming at the mouth.

After he refused to calm down and came close enough to strike me with his swinging hand which was holding the whip I slowly started to walk backwards constantly repeating "It's ok... really... it's ok, no picture". The fact that I was laughing a disbelieving cackle at the absurdity of his reaction probably didn't help the situation either.

Thankfully he was still holding the donkey and couldn't move very fast. I stepped backwards to avoid a near miss with his whip, into a rice field which was next to us but he still kept coming. Seeing the Tibetans that I had bought the noodles for in the middle of the road waving me over, I fast stepped over to them. The man kept coming, whip a'flailing, donkey, cart and all.

When the man reached the Tibetans it was clear that they couldn't help and I ran back to Jeff.

"This is crazy!" I said to Jeff laughingly.

"Wait, when he gets here, I'll just calm him down." It seemed like a good idea. When the man approached, Jeff stood in the way, being an innocent bystander, the man didn't pay any attention to him. He quickly pushed Jeff aside and launched himself towards me, yelling and taunting me to come closer with his free hand.

"This is nuts!" I said as I quickly back stepped to the Tibetans again, now they were waving me passed them as if to say "Just keep walking, this guy's a nutter!"

So I did, as I passed the Tibetans they held him back along with Jeff and I walked all the way back to the Hotel.

"You are not going to believe what just happened." I gasped as I burst into the room. Francise sat up on his bed as I explained the story.

When Jeff finally made it back to the hotel he explained that the Tibetans signalled to him that the guy was a bit crazy. Something I would be willing testify to in court.

"After you left he started waving a 5 Y bill in the air, I think he just wanted money. I don't know why he didn't just start by asking for the 5Y instead of attacking you."

Through all of the crazy adrenaline it seemed like the event hadn't actually happened... sureal....

"Jeff, so has this ever happened to you before?" I asked Jeff a few days later while walking to town to take some photos.

"No, not like that, sometimes they freak out and wave their hands or say NONO!, but nothing like that"

I took comfort in having been through potentially the worse candid photo experience, it could only get better from here on in.

-- "Emails from Lhasa"

Our last stop on the journey through Tibet was Lhasa the capital of the Chinese province. Lhasa was were I would spend 2 days with the group then stay behind alone, after the group flew back home.

Having seen 7 years in Tibet and other Tibetan theme films, I expected Lhasa to be a rustic Tibetan village. Surely with some Chinese influence but I had no idea it would be this bad. The quaint backwards Lhasa I was expecting was speckled with Internet Cafe's, plain looking Chinese built office buildings and glitzy shopping malls. It seemed as though the Chinese had built a modern city in and around an ancient mystical village. Contrasts smacked the eye at every every glance. A prayer wheel and yak butter could be purchased off a horse cart or next to it, a VCD/MP3 player. Sacred pilgrimage circuits which surround ancient temples now passed Cyber cafe's and luxury hotels.

Looking around I turned to Francise and said "I don't think the Tibet of before will ever be again..."

Francise's once optimistic opinion on the matter had soured, "Oui... je croix que to est correct"... he agreed.

I had been fighting off a flu since I foolishly scaled the mountain in Shigatse to view the city from the fort and decided that I would take it easy in Lhasa.

"We've been going too fast throughout Tibet, I think I'll stay here a little longer and soak it in"

"Oui, bonne idee"

-- Potala Palace and Sera Monestary

On the sixth day of the tour, we gathered the remaining tourists who had opted for the 7 day tour instead of the 5 day tour to visit the Potala Palace and the Sera Monestary.

It was a gray day, the rain having finally subsided. Even shrouded by the dark gray sky, the Potala Palace, which used to be the winter palace of the Dalai lama before his exile, still towered with magnificence. The Potala was commonly seen as a symbol of Tibet and I'd gazed at it 2 dimensionally before. Seeing it first hand was breathtaking.

Before entering Tibet, I'd read about the Dalai Lama's story and the Chinese occupation of his country in disbelief. The story went something like this. A great monk established a pure Buddhist sect which was later named the Gelupa sect. One of the founder's disciples prophecized before his death that he would be reincarnated and told of specific ways that he could be recognized and so the story goes of death and discovery of the reincarnate for several hundred years. Through this time, the Dalai Lama became a strong spiritual leader of his country, Tibet. During the 5th Dalai Lama's life, the mogols were in full offensive. Luckily, they took heart to Tibetan Buddhism and adopted the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader and thus saving Tibet from complete annihilation. With this new move, the Dalai lama attained great political power and since had been the leader of Tibet. As you may imagine, this did prove to be problematic. As one Dalai Lama passed on and the next was found at a young age of say, 4, it would be difficult to hand over the reigns of a country of several million to a child. To compensate, a regent was appointed power until the Dalai lama came of age. The following years and reincarnations weren't without their share of events but it wasn't until 1950 when Maoist Chinese troops marched into Lhasa to "liberate" the country. Since then, Tibet has become a province of China and the Dalai Lama (#14) maintains his exiled political system in Dharamsala, India. To this day, many Tibetans still see the Dalai lama as the head of the Tibetan state.

Despite the turmoil, Tibetans continued their ancient rituals and with their genuinely Buddhist tolerance, it's difficult to image that Tibet will ever be it's own country ever again.

The Potala Palace, with it's picasso'esque block like white and red towers, stands as a reminder of what Lhasa was once.

The Chinese have since converted the Potala into a pricey museum. The stupa filled rooms, tombs of previous Dalai Lamas and meditation rooms are all that remain. Walking through the dimly lit meditation halls, one can only imagine what it must have been like years before. The Dalai Lama, a young boy re-incarnated from the previous Dalai Lama, sitting on a humble throne meditating in front of hundreds of praying monks.

Having finished the tour of the Potala, we headed off to the Sera Monestary. We made sure to arrive at 3pm when the monks underwent their debating. The monks, dressed in deep red wine colored robes filled the courtyard in pairs. One sitting and the other standing in front. The standing monk then raised his hand high, shouted a question in Tibetan, and slapped his hand down into his other hand with passionate energy. The whole process was quite difficult to decipher at first. The seemingly bizarre ritual was simply an energetic way of practicing the early morning's lessons. The monks would attend classes in the mornings and then in the afternoon gather in the courtyard to challenge one and other on scriptures and lessons they'd learned that same day. The whole ritual was carried out with such enthusiasm and excitement that at times it seemed that violent arguments were breaking out, but to the contrary, the highly educational parade was more like friendly study session. To keep a close eye on the novices, the head monk strolled through the assemblies of slapping and shouting apprentices.

Completely absorbed by the entire process and energy of the debate, I neglected to wander through the monestary. After 2 hours had passed I finally stood up and walked back to the bus to end the day.

-- The tour comes to an end... at last.

It was the last day of the 7 day tour. For our last day, the schedule had 2 monestaries on it. Francise had promised a lama back in France that he'd make an offering ( typically done by melting a yak butter candle into the large multi-wick perma-burning yak butter lamps ) at the Potala. Unfortunately, something was lost in the triad of translation from him to me, then to the guide. Having missed his chance the day before, today would be his last chance to fulfill his promise.

Before leaving for the Drepung monestary, I ran out in the early morning to try my luck, for a 3rd time, at checking my email. Sure enough, it failed yet again. Knowing that China monitored and controlled all Internet traffic in the country, and knowing a fair bit of how Internet technologies work, I came to the conclusion that the Chinese Government must have been blocking connections to mail servers outside the country and gave up. The conspiracy theory quickly disappeared once in Kathmandu when I discovered that my mail server had actually been down.

On the walk back to the Hotel to meet Francise, I picked up a pound of smelly butter from a street vendor for his offering.

The Drepung monestary was a holy place which once housed 10,000 monks, the largest in the world, at the time. It was also the home to the first to the fourth Dalai Lama ( The 5th opted for more luxurious dwellings and commissioned the Potala Palace). It seemed like the perfect place for Francise to make his offering. As we entered, Francise bought a yak butter candle and we followed the group, and the pilgrims, into the chapels. The monestary was dimly lit by the candles and had a strong odor, expectedly, of yak butter.

Francise was dripping wax from his candle into every candle bowl along the way. The monastary's candles burn 24/7 thanks to pilgrims like Francise. He handed me the pound of hard butter I'd given him that same morning and motioned for me to spoon butter into the candles along with him as he did with his candle.

"Tu pense a ton voyage lorsque tu fais ca eh.", Francise suggested I think of my trip as I broke off chunks of butter and dropped it into the pools of melted butter.

When we arrived in one room with a solitary elderly monk banging a large drum with an odd looking stick which resembled a large wooden spoon bent over on itself, Francise walked over with cupped hands, made an offering and the monk roped a red stand of string around his neck.

When he eventually returned to our candle re-filling position, I had an idea. I asked him if the monk could bless the Meditation Beads that I'd bought in Myanmar months before. I'd been wearing them for weeks and had been having great luck since, having them blessed by a Tibetan monk could only bring more.

"Est ce que tu pense que je peu lui demanded de blesser mon collier?"

"Mais Certainment"

He showed me what I had to do, how to approach the monk, when to bow, and how to offer the beads for the blessing.

With pseudo-confidence that I knew what I was doing, I walked over, encouraged by Francise pushing slightly at my back, cupped my hands and bowed my head to the monk. He stopped beating his drum and turn to me with hands cupped while reciting a mantra in Tibetan.

Once he was finished with his mantra, I took the beads off of my neck and presented them to him with both hands. I had no idea what he would do to them, for all I knew he might have thought they were a gift and have kept my precious souvenir. He smiled, took the beads, and began reciting the familiar Ohm Mani Padme Hum mantra on 5 beds. In theory, a proper meditation session should include reciting the mantra once for each bead, but the necklace had 108 beads, 5 would do.

He then rubbed them in both hands and them recited a mantra as I starred wondering what was going to happen next. Then he opened his hands and blew over the necklace as if blowing dust off of an old hardcover book. He handed the beads back to me, wrapped a hand around the back of my neck and gently tapped my forehead against his 3 times... sensing my cue to back out, I left 5 yuan in his bowl and backed away slowly with beads a'blessed around my neck.

We continued around the monestary until finally, all of the butter was emptied and headed back to the hotel to prepare for the afternoon's visit to the Johkang, the most sacred temple in all of Tibet.

-- Solitude

"Tu fais mieux de me lancer un fil, eh!". Francise made me promise to visit him Bordeaux one day and left the next morning.

Francise had been through some very significant experiences on his spiritual journey to Tibet. I was happy to have been there with him through it and to have been able to help but, alas, I was glad to be alone again.

"Ahhh... la solitude..."

I inaugurated the morning by walking down to the Barkhor pilgrimage circuit at 7am and circumbulating the Johkang with the pilgrims. I sat as the sun rose over the temple watching the pilgrims cup their hands over their heads, squat and then stretch out on the pavement. Repeating this action hundreds of times in homage. Others reciting mantras and spinning hand held prayer wheels while walking around the temple. One women had even brought her goat for the sacred stroll clockwise around the Johkang. Afraid to take my camera out for a picture since the "Gyantse incident" I remained content that the experience was 100% undiluted by the lense of a camera ...

For the rest of the day I relaxed and then organized a day trip to the Ganden monestary, the first ever seat of the Gelupa order, 45 minutes east of Lhasa. A fellow Canadian, Rob, and my French friends, Jeff and Si signed up for the trip as well, which made for a decently cheap ride out to the monestary in a private land cruiser.

-- Ganden monastery

It was my first full-day out and about in Tibet without the restricted itinerary of the organized tour. I was glad it was over. I had managed to venture off on my own enough during the tour to have had a good taste of Tibet, but now I had the freedom to do what ever I wanted without having to meet a set schedule.

The old, rusty, yet fully intact Land Cruiser arrived at 8:30am, as planned. We were in luck, the clouds that had plagued Lhasa since we arrived had lifted and the day would be blessed with great light to satisfy my insatiable appetite for photographing just about every that moved in Tibet. Photo opportunities in Tibet lurked around every corner and I was taking full advantage of it.

We rode out, 45km east of Lhasa to the Monestary which stood perched 600 meters high, on a hill overlooking the mountainous valleys below. To climb the hill to arrive at the monestary, nestled in the hill side, we zig zagged our way up a good 3 dozen break neck switch backs as goats, yaks and cows were hushed off of the road to let us pass.

We decided that the best way to discover the monestary was to split up and wander aimlessly through the complex for the first 2 hours. Jeff and I launched in, passed pilgrims and monks carrying large silver water vases on their backs. Aside from it's unbelievably perfect location, the monestary was much like other's we'd visited but there was something about the monestaries and the friendly monks in Tibet that made it very difficult to get bored with. Every corner revealed a smiling face belonging to either a pilgrim, monk or nun. Before meeting with Jeff and Si, we visited Tsongkhapa's tomb, the pilgrim's highlight of the monestary. Tsongkhapa being of course the founder of the Gelupa order, the Dalai Lama's Buddhist Sect.

Feeling a little adventurous, initially at least, we ventured off south bound, by foot over the Himalaya. The 4 day trek to the Samye monestary started at Ganden and we had planned to walk out for a few hours and then turn back. Taking in the breathtaking Himalayan backdrop along the way.

We walked, up steep hills, passed prayer flags and grazing yaks, to finally rest on a out-stretched rock. The valley below us was green and dotted with bright yellow fields of flowers. Behind the valleys, gigantic mountains crashed upwards in every direction.

"It's just not possible to capture this on camera" Rob said perched on the rock as we all gazed out silently.

We had reached a fairly high altitude, 4500 meters. Jeff and Rob decided to climb to the top of the mountain we had managed to scale already one quarter of and Si went back to the monestary. The altitude seemed to be affecting me heavily. My head was pounding, my heart racing and my breath was short at every three steps. Jeff and Rob had already trekked in the Himalaya for weeks and were already acclimatized. They trudged on upwards but after 30 minutes of climbing an almost vertical incline, vertigo began to set in and I, very slowly, made my way to the path were I crashed down to catch my breath. My body wasn't used to the lack of oxygen. I couldn't risk the climb, a fall wouldn't almost certainly cause me to tumble straight down to my death.

I ran back down and walked through the sprawling complex into an area I'd never been to.

"Hey! Up here" the monk shouted from atop a monastic dwelling.

"Can I come up?"

"Yes of course"

I climbed up to the roof of the white washed building and sat with the monk. The view was spectacular. The complex spread out beneath us. We talked for 20 minutes when 6 Tibetan girls climbed to the roof top to examine the odd foreigner. Thanks to the language section in my Lonely Planet we attempted a conversation for an hour. Having exhausted the possible sentences which could be assembled from the thin Tibetan language section, I took some ( hopefully ) great pictures and promised to send them to their monastery once I returned home.

Jeff, Si, Rob and I meet up again. We had heard that the monestary had debates ( Much like I'd seen at the Sera Monestary a few days before ) and we decided to stick around to watch the monks battle it out in a wits matching contest to drain away the rest of the day.

We attended a session of class where the young novices are taught Buddhist scriptures waiting for the debate to begin. Unfortunately, the debates began 4 hours later. After 30 minutes, sitting in the back of the class as they all speed read aloud scriptures in unison, we left for Lhasa in our intrepid Land Cruiser. Back down the switch backs and passed the yaks and goats but this time bathed in the warm light of a cloud-free sunset.

"Well... I think this has been the best day since I arrived in Tibet..." I said reflecting on the day's events as we drove back.

"Oui, je suis d'accord...", everyone agreed...

-- Last days

The last day in Tibet had come. Jeff and Si were trekking up north on their multi-year endeavor around the world, Rob was moving on to northern China and I was flying back to Kathmandu the next day to continue south to India. For my final day in Lhasa, Rob and I rented bicycles and rode around Lhasa visiting the disturbingly unmaintained Dalai Lama's summer palace and riding around in the burning sun which produces an odd effect of being seeringly hot from being 3600 meters above sea level but also crispy cool from the cold Himalayan wind.

When 2pm rolled around, we rendezvous'ed with Si and Jeff for late afternoon beers listening to music outside the threesome's room at the Yak Hotel.

To end the last day we had our proverbial last dinner by performing our nightly ritual of Lhasa beer, world cup soccer ( Yes even in Tibet the World cup is viciously followed ) and a nice fat, plump Yak steak.

"Ouin, j'aurais pus restez plus longtemps aux Tibet" I said to no one in particular reflecting that I could have easily stayed longer in wonderful Tibet.

"Tu *aurais* du restez plus longtemps?" Si asked, implying that perhaps I was regretting leaving.

"Non, non, pas de regrais... *j'aurais* pus" I added... "Pas de regrets", no regrets... this was my time to leave.

The next morning I flagged down a taxi in the 6am darkness trying to find a ride to the airport once my scheduled Land Cruiser pickup failed to show up and sped through the mountains to my awaiting flight out of Tibet. I gazed passed the mountain tops as the sun slowly rose painting the sky a soft baby blue which gradually matured into a bright fire red orange. As I intensely studied every passing undulating peak, I sighed knowing in the back of my mind that I would probably never be back in Tibet... Wonderful Tibet...

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suzloua on

Came across your blog from your featured photo on the homepage, sounds like you had a really awesome trip. I want to go to Tibet now!

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